There was a time when products made completely bogus claims about being "green" and got away with it. The very first wave of green products were largely greenwash specials. Make the bold environmental claim, add enough exclamation points, and off you go. Ok, so it still happens to some degree today, but it's a lot better than it was.
A whole other generation of green products went a different route. They offered genuine, bona fide environmental benefits, but these products didn't work as well as the "non-green" products. Did you ever try the early toilet papers made from recycled paper? If not, count your blessings.
For the past eight years, my firm has been advising leading companies around the world about how to create value for shareholders by creating value for society (the latter we call "citizen value"). Products that don't trash the planet are a big part of that. We've seen many efforts that have failed to simultaneously deliver for customers and the environment and only a few successes. Here's what we've learned.
* Sacrificing customer value for citizen value is no better a business strategy than making untrue or unsubstantiated claims about the social and environmental benefits of a product. In the end, one way or another, the bad news eventually catches up with the product and the brand.
* The world of green product development is finally catching up on both counts. It's now possible to get green products in a number of categories that offer good customer value and credible environmental benefits. This is increasingly true for architects and designers seeking building and finishing materials that are as easy on the earth as they are on the eyes.
But how does one know whether one's dealing with a throwback to the days of greenwash or a green product with poor quality?
Again, the answer is evolving. The traditional answer has been to rely on the manufacturers' claims about recycled content and other individual attributes. Increasingly the answer is relying on third-party assessments of the environmental footprints of products over their complete life cycle. That means several things.
First it means that the claims are verified by an independent, third-party source. It provides the valuable reassurances that the product lives up to whatever claims it has made. Think of it as trust, but verify. That's good, but not good enough.
You still want a standard that doesn't just look at single attributes, but looks at the impact of the products throughout the life cycle. That's the only way to be sure that a product has genuine environmental benefits. Fortunately, this life cycle perspective also helps out on quality. If a product will wear out twice as fast as an alternative, a good life cycle analysis will favor the more durable option.
The really good news is that an increasing number of standards for building products meet these two key tests. You may already be familiar with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and its program to certify sustainably harvested wood. FSC evaluates all the various aspects of growing and harvesting timber and relies on third-party certification to assure that customers can buy the wood with confidence that the standards have been met.
There's also a growing family of standards that come under the broad heading of Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP). These standards grew out of an executive order that directs the federal government and its contractors to purchase environmentally
preferable products and was given shape by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The first specific standards for EPP addressed flooring: carpet face fiber, broadloom and tile carpeting, and flooring cleaning systems. A growing number of products have achieved third-party certification to these new standards.
The really big news is what's happening now in California. The California Division of the State Architect is creating "EPP screening criteria for a minimum of 20 product categories, prioritized by total dollars spent and potential environmental and health impacts." So far, they have drafted or revised standards for gypsum wallboard, composite panels and fiber-based insulation. The first wave of standards will also include finished wall panels, acoustical ceiling tiles, adhesives and sealants, resilient flooring, paint, and casework and cabinetry.
This all amounts to good news for the planet, the businesses delivering environmentally preferable products, and the customers who use those products in their buildings. You still have to watch out for greenwash, but you have EPP in your corner to help. Don't settle for anything less.
Paul Gilding (paul.gilding@ecos corp.com) is the founder and CEO of Ecos Corporation, which provides strategic advice to corporations on how to create value through sustainability.